Study Guide

Ulalume Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

By Edgar Allan Poe

Symbolism, Imagery, Wordplay

Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

The Skies

The opening image of the "ashen and sober" skies helps to set the mood in this poem. It prepares us for the generally grim, sorrowful mood of the speaker. It also focuses our attention on the landscape. Later in the poem, the speaker brings up the skies again, in a different and much more hopeful way.

  • Line 1: In this line the skies are ominous and scary. They seem almost to be warning the reader away. In fact, it sounds a little like the speaker is describing a pale, serious human face.
  • Line 45: Here the skies come back again, but the message is totally different. In this case the skies aren't ominous at all. Now they are a stand-in for heaven or paradise, the place where the speaker wants to go to escape his memories.

The Leaves

These dry brown leaves give us another image of the dark, cold mood that's hanging over this poem at the beginning. The speaker also makes it pretty clear that these leaves are symbolic of his own emotional state.

  • Line 2: We think this poem is meant to be read aloud and to be heard. Why do we think that? Because so many of the words sound like what they mean. That trick is called onomatopoeia. Take a word like "crispèd" for example. It means dry, crunchy, crackly. Now say the word out loud. Can't you just hear the crackly sound in the word itself? The word sounds like what it means.
  • Line 3: This is the first of many (almost) refrains in the poem. A real refrain, like in a song, is just a repeated line ("You can stand under my umbrella…ella…ella…"). In "Ulalume," the line repeats, but with a change of one word. That's why we're going to call it an almost refrain. It emphasizes the line, and echoes it, but it also brings in something new.
  • Line 82: In this line, the leaves come back. This time, however, they are part of a simile. The speaker is comparing his own heart to the dry, crispy leaves. That's a big theme throughout the poem: the connection between the way he's feeling inside and the way the world outside of him looks.

The Lake of Auber

This is another pretty strong image from the opening stanza. The speaker doesn't use a ton of words to describe this lake, but he doesn't really have to. Just a few well-chosen adjectives are enough to give us a sense of how icky and spooky it is.

  • Line 6: In this first reference, he calls the lake "dim." This fits right in with the "sober" skies and the "misty" region of Weir. As any good horror movie fan knows, dark water is a great way to creep people out. Who knows what could be under there?
  • Line 8: Now he calls the lake "dank." That means damp and cold. The damp part doesn't really seem fair, since it's kind of a lake's job to be damp. Still, you get the picture right? It's a slimy dark, cold lake in the middle of the woods. Not where you want to be hanging out.
  • Line 91: At the end of the poem, the lake makes a comeback. Before, it was just part of the set-up. Now it's a sign of the speaker's memory coming back. This is the big payoff for the whole poem, the main dramatic event. This little refrain, the repetition of the description of the lake, helps to give it its impact. In a way, when we read this echo of a previous line, it's as if our own memories were coming back too.

The Cypress Alley

There's more spooky, dark imagery here. On a dark night full of shadows, we bet these tall cypress trees would be really creepy.

  • Line 12: There's some really great alliteration in this line. Check out the three main words in this line: Cypress, Psyche, soul. Although they start with different letters, they share the same sound – s, s, s. This is just one of the many cool sound effects Poe has woven into this poem.

The Volcano

This starts off seeming like a passing thought, a quick detour, but then it turns into something much bigger. Without much warning, we spin off on an adventure that takes an entire stanza. The speaker takes us all the way to the North Pole, to the fiery sides of a volcano, just so he can get us to fully understand how emotional he was feeling in this moment.

  • Line 13: This line kicks off an epic simile, which is basically a poetic comparison that extends over several lines. Instead of just saying: x is like y (heart is like volcano) he paints us a complete, rich picture of the volcano. We think this turns a pretty normal poetic move into something exciting and memorable
  • Line 14: There are a lot of words in this poem that sound like what they mean. We think "scoriac" is a particularly great example of that technique, which English teachers call onomatopoeia. Scoria is a rough, gritty volcanic stone. So a "scoriac river" is a flow of rough rock. Doesn't the word scoriac kind of grate and crunch and crumble off your tongue? Cool, huh?

The Star

The speaker actually spends a lot of time on this image. At first, it's not quite clear what we're looking at. The speaker sees a glowing object rising in the sky at the end of the trail. As the poem goes on, it becomes clear that the thing he's seeing is the planet Venus. When Venus comes up in the morning, like it's doing in this poem, it's sometimes called the "morning star."

  • Line 37: The rising star makes the speaker think of the goddess Astarte. He has all kinds of wild ideas about how she's coming to help him and his soul out, to lead them to heaven and happiness, etc. When you give human attributes to a non-human thing like a planet, that's called personification.
  • Line 52: Psyche is way less psyched about this star (sorry, that's awful). Anyway, she thinks the appearance of the planet might be a bad omen, and she tells her friend the speaker as much. Also, check out the alliteration in this line: "Said—'Sadly this star.'"
  • Line 103: One last mention of the planet before the poem is done. Here the speaker comes over to Psyche's side of the argument and agrees that maybe the planet's appearance was a bad sign. We hate to sound like a broken record, but there's more great alliteration here: "sinfully scintillant." Actually, even without the alliteration, that's just an awesome word combination.

The Tomb

We think that, as a symbol of death and sorrow, there's nothing more important in this poem than the tomb. On top of that, it's just a really vivid image, sort of rearing out of the wilderness like that, without much warning. It's the thing that finally breaks through the speaker's amnesia, and makes him realize where he is and what happened there.

  • Line 76: Wham. The speaker and Psyche are "stopped" by the tomb. In a way, so are we. All of the imagery we've seen so far is natural, part of the world of the woods. Now, here's something man-made, cut out of stone. It's a totally different thing from the lake and the skies and the trees.
  • Line 79: The tomb has some writing on the door (also a first for this poem). That writing turns out to be the name of his lost love, Ulalume. It's the first time we've heard this name. In a way, then, the tomb is introducing us to this important character. It's also a symbol of the cold, hard fact of death.

Psyche, Astarte, Dian, Lethe

Looking for some thoughts on these mythological references? Head on over to "Allusions." See you there.